by Sue Callaway
“Commercial considerations are fundamentally incompatible with revolutionary ideas. But with a few compromises, it was possible to construct something infinitely better than a cupboard on wheels.” — Gabriel Voisin (1880-1973)
Inventor, visionary, thrill-seeker, engineer and skirt chaser: What do they have in common? They all look ahead to their next great innovation/idea/woman—never back. And, perhaps not in that order, they all describe Gabriel Voisin, the rakish, egotistical and insanely talented French aviator and automotive innovator who was as ahead of his time on the ground as he was in the air (he, not the Wright brothers, claims the first officially time a plane was able to take off from the ground, fly a 1-kilometer loop, and successfully land). This under-appreciated da Vinci of the early 20th century is now being celebrated in magnificent and unprecedented detail in “La Vision de Gabriel Voisin” at the Mullin Automotive Museum in Oxnard, CA.
Why trek to Oxnard to learn more about a marque you may never have heard of or know little about? If you are well-versed in vintage, then you already know that the collection Peter Mullin has amassed is easily one of the top five most important and glorious collections in the world. For everyone else, here are a few reasons:
1) Voisin was a pioneer: He used aluminum to build his car bodies. In fact, it may be the most significant reason that so few (as few as 150) of the nearly 10,000 luxury cars he manufactured from 1919 to 1939 have survived. Aluminum was a highly sought-after material in WWII; it is painful to think of the flights of vehicular fancy scrapped for munitions.
2) Using a motorized vacuum system, Voisin developed an innovative retractable hardtop, one of the first and unique in its design: the glass in the sunroof became the rear window as the large roof panel slid backwards.
3) The likes of Man Ray, Le Corbusier, Rudolph Valentino and Josephine Baker all owned Voisins.
4) The 75 hp, four-cylinder Knight sleeve-valve engines he used in most of his cars were innovative for the time and desirable because, unlike the rest of the luxury-car competition, they were whisper-quiet. (Unfortunately, sleeve valves use a tremendous amount of oil and therefore the hushed Voisins emitted a consistent, less-than-subtle plume of burned-oil smoke.) Voisin originally got the engines from Citroen and refined them; the French automaker deemed them too expensive for its production cars.
5) Voisin’s 1923 C6 Laboratoire was the first monocoque car.
Peter Mullin and his team (which includes Melody Kanschat, the former president and COO of LACMA) have spared no expense in assembling this first-ever paean to Voisin. Six Voisin family members attended the opening recently; none of them had ever seen so many of their ancestor’s extravagantly disciplined cars together in one place. They even discovered the original Aeroplanes de Voisin sign, disassembled it, shipped it to California from France in pieces and re-assembled it.
And if you still need any other reason to head immediately to Oxnard, Mullin has also amassed a preeminent collection of Art Nouveau and Art Deco furniture and art, including a breathtakingly rare collection of furniture made by Carlo Bugatti, Ettore's father.
Avions Voisin (wikipedia)